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Michigan Ross Students First to Lead and Run Real Businesses as Part of New Course


Giving students the opportunity to lead real businesses as part of the Ross experience has been a vision of Scott DeRue, the Edward J. Frey Dean of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, since before he assumed his current role in 2016.

This fall, that vision became a reality as MBA students and BBA students are running actual businesses, starting businesses, and vetting business ideas for three major companies.

The idea was piloted with Shinola as a Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) in spring 2017. But to kick off an actual class, now called the Living Business Leadership Experience Course, Ross has added Ford Smart Mobility and The NRP Group to the companies partnering with students and the William Davidson Institute at U-M. And there are more companies coming to the course in the winter-spring session.

"Learning by doing prepares students for the challenges of their careers by developing their abilities to think independently, function with limited data, manage ambiguity, collaborate effectively, and continually grow from their experiences,” says DeRue. “Developing these abilities is the principal objective of experiential learning and it forms the core of our academic philosophy at Michigan Ross."


The MAP experience with Shinola began as a study of whether the Detroit-based luxury brand could and should enter the men’s grooming category. Students examined every aspect of the business, including finance, marketing, and supply chain. Students also had to navigate the relationship between Shinola and a consumer-products giant with which the small company was partnering for the initiative.

The MAP experience immersed the first-year Ross MBA students in Shinola for seven weeks. And they have been reporting directly to Shinola CEO Tom Lewand, MBA ‘96, who is also on Michigan Ross’ Board of Advisers to the dean. “This idea is not only a natural progression of the Ross approach and vision for learning business by doing business, but it is an amazing opportunity for Shinola to tap into incredibly smart minds to get a whole new line of business off the ground in a timely way,” says Lewand. “It would be difficult any other way given how busy we are and how stretched we are as we grow.”

“The Shinola brand can give a product a real boost...a cool factor that separates it from anything else in the category,” says team member Katherine Moriarty, MBA ’18. “A lot of our work was customer interviews and studying what people valued so we could best tailor the product insights into whether and how the Shinola brand would justify premium pricing in this category.”

In the end, though, Shinola and the students decided to back-burner the men’s grooming line it was exploring. For the fall ‘17 course, students have turned their attention to high-end audio. Shinola has been piloting the sale of a turntable and speakers at its stores, but wants to scale the audio business into a third tent-pole business line to complement its watches and leather goods. Students are managing all aspects of this expansion, which includes the scaling of Detroit-based manufacturing, pricing, and marketing, and especially figuring out how the Shinola brand can best be merchandised to audiophiles who will be key to the product line’s credibility in the marketplace.

Ford Smart Mobility

Ross students are working with Ford Motor Co. on its Smart Mobility business, developing a global business plan for the unit that has autonomous driving at its core.

At the center of this work with Ford is the Transportation Operating System (TOS) that is a central part of the automaker’s plan to make the eventual launch of autonomous vehicles profitable.

Part of the challenge and opportunity for students with this business unit is that it requires that Ford work extensively with different cities and municipalities that have a huge stake in how autonomous driving is rolled out. The infrastructure to support all the technical capabilities of the TOS varies from city to city, state to state, and country to country.

The partnership with Ross not only encompasses students generating ideas for expanding the autonomous car business model, but eventually perhaps serving as a consultancy to city and state governments on their infrastructure investments needed to keep up with the transportation technology being developed by Ford and other automakers.

Elyse Hovanesian, BBA’18, is getting to do more hands-on work than she imagined. “Working for a real business has brought up the challenges and rewards I am used to only reading about in cases. While the work is more demanding and complex, I enjoy being part of the results and having an experience to prepare me for my career.”

NRP Group

The NRP Group, the Cleveland-based real-estate development company, has turned to Ross students to develop a scalable business model for its urban affordable housing projects.

The company has developed and constructed well over 27,000 residential units in 13 states, and manages more than 100 properties – encompassing 16,000 luxury, family, and senior rental units – in 8 states. The company is a national leader in building both affordable and luxury apartment communities.

But NRP co-founder and principal David Heller says the new norm for building affordable urban housing is that companies like NRP must also provide social and support services to residents of their developments.

“This support can take many forms, including everything from mentoring services for at-risk teens to elder care. While we have achieved success stories to date, we are turning to Ross students to help us manage the efforts going forward and develop expertise such that we can offer consulting services to other companies that see the benefit of providing superior supportive services to residents,” says Heller.

Faculty Mentoring

“The LBLE vision is to put students into an ambiguous, unstructured environment in which they must choose which tool, framework, or perspective to apply, and when. This is a capstone-style experience that is designed to distill and integrate the core and elective material they learn at Ross,” observes Bill Lovejoy, associate dean for specialty master’s programs, who oversees the Shinola team.

Winter 2018

For the winter semester, the LBLE course will be adding three additional companies, which will be partners and offer students a unique hands-on opportunity to guide real businesses through the obstacle course that any company faces in their start-up period:

  1. Ookla 
    The company is behind Speedtest, and is the global leader in internet testing and analysis. Speedtest has been used over ten billion times worldwide, and is the most accurate way to measure internet performance.

  2. Daily Fuel
    This digital media and news site/service, which brings subscribers daily content from thought leaders, business leaders, and others, is in ramp up, and students will be working to build out the business model.

  3. A third company is being finalized for the course.

Current LBLE participants will help choose the next class of students.

For more information about the Living Business Leadership Experience, visit the program site.

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